How the drugged-up, cut-up ‘pope’ of rock transformed music


How the drugged-up, cut-up ‘pope’ of rock transformed music

The Beatles, Bowie, Dylan and the Stones all fell under notorious Beat junkie William Burroughs’s spell

Casey Rae

William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine and The Wild Boys, was the most transgressive of the Beat writers. His biography has become as legendary as his most celebrated novels: born in the Jazz Age, the favoured son of a wealthy Midwestern industrialist, he became a homosexual drug addict, occult experimenter and petty criminal who killed his wife in a drunken game of William Tell and wrote infamous prose featuring orgasmic executions, shape-shifting aliens and all manner of addicts, sadists and creepy crawlies.

Yet he was also something of a clandestine agent in the development of rock ’n’ roll, a spectral figure who haunted the cultural underground and helped usher it into the mainstream. His direct impact on musical artists over a half-century is immense, but largely unknown.

It’s not hard to see how his writing, exploding with disquieting, even ghastly imagery, might serve as fodder for punk or heavy metal. But his anti-establishment attitude and unconventional personal habits also found favour with mainstream artists such as Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. The Beatles even put him on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, alongside the likes of Carl Jung, Karl Marx and Oscar Wilde. U2 sought out Burroughs for their 1997 video for Last Night on Earth, his last filmed appearance. Once you start looking, Burroughs is everywhere. It’s like Where’s Wally? with a killer soundtrack. But instead of a chipper youth in a striped sweater, we’re spying a wan junkie in an old fedora...

This article is reserved for Sunday Times Daily subscribers.
A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times Daily content.

Sunday Times Daily

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Questions or problems?
Email or call 0860 52 52 00.